The Most Important Black Radical You’ve Never Heard Of

Hubert Harrison was one of the first black socialists in the United States, a fierce champion of racial equality, and a pioneering analyst of how capitalists use racism to divide the working class. He deserves to be remembered.

Hubert Harrison, seated left, and Industrial Workers of the World leaders Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood, seated right, organized the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. (American Labor Museum)

Hubert Henry Harrison is the most important black radical you’ve never heard of. While other leading figures in the black freedom movement, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Ella Baker to Malcolm X, have been honored with everything from street names to postage stamps, Harrison remains in the shadows, largely unknown except to specialists in black history. In his day, however, Harrison was a figure who stood alongside giants like Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, and A. Philip Randolph.

Harrison was also one of the earliest black socialists in the United States. In his time in the Socialist Party, Harrison developed an analysis of how capitalism produces racial inequality and pressed the labor movement to directly confront that inequality. A supporter of the party’s radical left wing, Harrison was pushed out during factional struggles before World War I. He went on to form his own newspaper and lead the black radical upsurge in Harlem that followed the war.

Throughout his brief life, Harrison insisted on linking the fight against racial oppression with the fight against capitalism. His life’s work is a vital resource for radicals today attempting to join those two struggles.

Linking Anti-Racism to Socialism

Harrison was born in Saint Croix, a small Caribbean island, in 1883. By the age of seven, he was working as a domestic servant. When his mother died in 1898, Harrison immigrated to New York, finishing high school there and taking a job in the post office. He quickly established himself as an intellectual leader, organizing political discussion groups among his coworkers and throwing himself into New York’s vibrant scene of street lectures and debates.

A fierce advocate for racial equality, Harrison soon ran afoul of the most important black political figure of his generation, the accommodationist Booker T. Washington. Harrison had written a letter to the New York Sun in response to Washington’s recent contention that “the Southern States of the Union offer the Negro a better chance than almost any other country in the world.” In his reply, Harrison excoriated Washington for his silence about the outrages of American racism and accused him of holding his position as race leader “by grace of the white people who elect colored people’s leaders for them.”

Washington never deigned to respond to Harrison in print, but instead replied with action. Using his position as a distributor of patronage jobs to black Americans as part of the Republican Party machine, Washington had Harrison fired from the post office.

Yet if Washington’s intent was to silence Harrison, his plan failed miserably. Less than a month after losing his position, Harrison found work again, this time as a lecturer and organizer for the Socialist Party.

The Socialist Party was a formidable organization, particularly in New York, when Harrison joined it in 1911. Across the country, socialists were winning election to city councils and state assemblies; in Wisconsin, socialist leader Victor Berger even secured a seat in Congress. The party was less successful organizing black workers, despite considerable debate since its founding over the “race question.”

Harrison’s task was to change that. Brought on as an organizer in the middle of the 1911 municipal campaign, the young intellectual’s remit was to help the party build support among black voters. He proved extremely effective, pioneering the use of socialist campaign materials directed at black Americans. When the results came in, the party’s vote total had jumped by six thousand since the last contest, driven in part by an increase in support among black voters. The party, clearly impressed with Harrison’s acumen, hired him as a full-time speaker and organizer “for the purpose of establishing a nucleus of an organization among the colored people.”

Harrison got to work immediately, helping set up a “Colored Socialist Club” in the city and writing a string of articles on “The Negro and Socialism” in the New York Call. The five-part series laid out an analysis of racial oppression in the United States more sophisticated than anything yet produced by American socialists. Harrison’s was a materialist understanding of racism, holding that it resulted neither from “natural” race prejudice, nor from the bad ideas of whites, but from “the fallacy of economic fear,” by which “economic competition create[s] race prejudice.” It was “in the interests of the capitalists of America,” he wrote, “to preserve the inferior economic status of the colored race, because they can always use it as a club for the other workers.”

And it was in the interest of the Socialist Party (SP) to divest them of that club. The party, Harrison argued, had to take up the cause of “all sections of down-trodden humanity,” and reject the suicidal policy of excluding black workers (as many unions in the American Federation of Labor did at the time). For Harrison, socialists and black Americans needed each other:

If the overturning of the present system should elevate a new class into power; a class to which the Negro belongs; a class which has nothing to gain by the degradation of any portion of itself; that class will remove the economic reason for the degradation of the Negro. That is the promise of Socialism, the all-inclusive working-class movement. In the final triumph of that movement lies the only hope of salvation from this second slavery; of black men and of white.

Unfortunately, just as Harrison was publicizing his pioneering analysis of racism, larger events in the party were working against him. Factionalism between the left and right wings was coming to a head, largely over attitudes toward the revolutionary unionists of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The IWW embraced class-struggle unionism and scorned both cooperation with employers and the “pure-and-simple” unionism of the AFL. Crucially for Harrison, the IWW also actively organized black workers. The right wing of the party, meanwhile, prioritized its alliance with AFL unions and viewed the IWW as wild-eyed revolutionaries. They reserved special contempt for IWW leader Big Bill Haywood, a member of the party’s executive committee. In 1912, the right wing successfully booted Haywood from the SP, leading many left wingers in the party to leave with him.

Harrison’s strong support for the party’s left put him in a precarious position in New York, where one of Haywood’s chief enemies, Morris Hillquit, helmed the SP. The party leadership in the city began restricting Harrison’s work, forbidding even his own branch from scheduling him as a speaker. Harrison, never one to back down from a fight, sent off a short note to the city executive committee, telling it to “go chase itself ,” and adding, “By the way, if my color has anything to do with it this time I should thank you to let me know.”

The local found Harrison in contempt of the executive committee and suspended his membership for three months. By the time his punishment was up, Harrison had moved on from the Socialist Party.

A New Militancy

After leaving the Socialist Party, Harrison became an independent radical, making his own way through New York City’s vibrant left. He gave lectures on subjects from atheism to birth control, developing into one of the city’s most respected street speakers.

When World War I broke out, Harrison saw in it a new opportunity for black advance. While he opposed the war, he echoed analysts like W. E. B. Du Bois and Vladimir Lenin, who viewed the conflict as fundamentally about which European powers would dominate the colonial world. He hoped by its end that “washed clean by its baptism of blood, the white race will be less able to thrust the strong hand of its sovereign will down the throats of other races.” In the meantime, as the imperialists fought amongst themselves, the colonized must rise up. The 1916 Easter Rebellion exemplified the kind of action Harrison hoped to see spread throughout the colonial world. “The Negro people of America would never amount to anything much politically until they should see fit to imitate the Irish of Britain,” he wrote.

Harrison took it upon himself to begin that imitation. On Christmas Eve 1916, he delivered a talk entitled “When the Negro Awakes: A Lecture of ‘The Manhood Movement’ Among the Negro People of America” that both analyzed and catalyzed a new militancy among black Americans. In the wake of the talk’s success, Harrison founded the Liberty League, an organization dedicated to black struggle against white supremacy and the first group identified with the nascent “New Negro Movement.” The meeting collected funds to establish a newspaper, the Voice, to be edited by Harrison. The new paper focused in particular on armed self-defense against lynching and anti-black riots, which had both spread as the war economy drew African-American workers out of the rural South.

The Voice quickly took off, frequently boasting circulation numbers of ten thousand per issue.  It also drew the attention of Harrison’s political competitors. Fred Moore, one of Booker T. Washington’s lieutenants, dismissed the Voice, claiming that “the representative Negro does not approve of radical socialistic outbursts, such as calling upon the Negroes to defend themselves against the whites.” Representative or not, black Americans were buying and reading the Voice.

As with the Socialist Party, however, more conservative elements worked to undermine Harrison’s political activity. Harrison’s competitors pressured his printers, interfering with the paper’s ability to come out in a timely fashion. Harrison also refused, on grounds of racial pride, to take advertising money from the large industry of hair straighteners and skin whiteners that provided crucial financing for other black-edited papers. His personal behavior didn’t help either — always disinterested in financial questions, Harrison handled money poorly. By November 1917, the Voice had ceased publication, a mere five months after it began.

Harrison also soon found himself with formidable competition for leadership of Harlem’s politically restive black citizens. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born printer, had come to the United States in 1916 and begun building his black nationalist organization, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Recruiting many of Harrison’s early supporters, the UNIA grew into a massive organization, rapidly building a membership in the tens of thousands. By 1920, even Harrison himself would take a job editing Garvey’s paper, The Negro World.

A Legacy of Radicalism

Harrison died of an appendicitis operation in 1927 at the age of forty-four. His death was not widely noticed, despite his prominence just a decade earlier. In the years after 1920, he had continued to contribute to New York’s radical political culture, but never with the influence he held as either a Socialist Party member or a leader of the New Negro Movement.

Almost a century later, contemporaries of Harrison’s, like Garvey and A. Philip Randolph, remain better known than the black radical, even though Harrison was much more established in Harlem’s leftist politics much earlier than either. Harrison’s obscurity — heroically combated in recent years by the scholar Jeffrey Perry — is partially a function of his lack of success in institution-building. While Randolph’s paper, the Messenger, published for a decade, and Garvey’s UNIA placed its stamp on a generation of black politics, Harrison’s efforts were more short-lived. As a result, his considerable influence and originality has not received its due.

Yet his contribution remains a vital one. Particularly in the Socialist Party, Harrison articulated a clear vision of the role of racism in dividing the workers’ movement and the necessity for socialists to attack racial oppression wherever it was found. And while Harrison grew disillusioned with the SP, particularly its conservatism around questions of race and labor, he never abandoned his belief that only socialism would bring liberation to black Americans.

Today, Harrison’s work remains unfinished. To realize the ideals of equality and democracy that guided him still requires, in his words, “a revolution . . . startling to even think of.”